Blunt Trauma

Firefighters for whom 9-11 never ends

But the insight comes at a price. "I have to carry the burden of what I saw. And I have to carry a lot of secrets that other people don't know about," he says. He looks off. "I'm going to die with a lot of secrets, unfortunately." McMahon knows what people had in their pockets when they died. He knows whose body was found near whose, hinting at connections between lives in their final moments. And he believes that the official versions of how they died were well-intentioned white lies. "Most of the medical examiner's reports listed 'blunt trauma' as the cause of death. And nothing could be further from the truth. Listen, those people were ripped apart," he says. "The family needed to move on. We needed to have closure. Are we going to say 'decapitated'? No one wants to say that stuff. 'Blunt trauma' is bullshit. That's understating the loss of humanity that day."

In his last hours as one of the Bravest, McMahon has one secret he can share. Sometimes, he says, when a firefighter's next of kin were told that remains had been located, they were not informed of exactly what had been found. So there might have been a single piece—say, a metatarsal fragment, a foot bone about the size of the thumb—in a sealed plastic bag inside a brown paper sack labeled with the number from the list. But the family would show up with a hearse and a gurney, expecting to see some recognizable part of their beloved. "So we've got this big gurney," McMahon recalls. "We've got this body bag and this flag, and we've got this plastic baggie the size of your thumb. So we'd say, 'Fuck it,' put the box in, zip it up." Then McMahon would blow forcefully into the bag to inflate it. "Pretend it's heavy," he'd tell the men carrying the bag to the hearse. "Don't let them see it weighs three ounces."

Was it the right thing to do, McMahon wonders. "I sit here right now, and I don't know," he says. "Did I hurt people's feelings? I'll never know. But I have to live with that for the rest of my life. It was mind-boggling."

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